Saturday, April 10, 2010

PAX East Recap - Part 4

[Finally, it's the conclusion of the story of my trip to the PAX East gaming convention, continued from Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. You must read all of these before reading this post, or else we can't be friends.]

The Big Stuff was over. I met Wil Wheaton; I met Bill Amend; I Got Lamp--what remained on the itinerary were a few panels that seemed somewhat interesting, such as a bunch of guys from talking about their hilarious videos. The CollegeHumor panel was moderately entertaining and was structured remarkably well, but waiting at least 30 minutes to get into everything was wearing on me to a greater extent than my trusty Game Boy Advance could compensate for.

Ironically, there was no line for the ladies' restroom. Ever.

As I mentioned last time, the PAX East organizers did seem to learn from everything that was going on, and when it was time for the obscenely huge mob to cluster in a semi-orderly fashion in front of the doors for the Saturday night concerts, there were two lines--a line for preferred seating to people who were given fancy wristbands for showing up super-early to see Bill Amend, and a line for the peasants. In order to meet up and sit with some peasant friends of mine who were also attending the con, my girlfriend and I charitably gave up our wristbands to people who couldn't sit with their friends because they were peasants.

So, everybody won.

Perhaps more importantly, the PAX East staff knew that we were going to be insanely bored for the hour or so that we had to wait to get in, so they started passing out. Whoa, sorry; premature punctuation. They started passing out colorful pipe cleaners to whoever wanted them.

Apparently, gamers are a highly artistic lot--in a matter of minutes, there were elaborate pipe cleaner hats and helmets and Mickey Mouse headgear, ridiculous pipe cleaner sunglasses, interlocking rings of pipe cleaners forming a chain that just kept growing, a pipe cleaner helicopter with a pipe cleaner sniper leaning out the side, a Weighted pipe cleaner Companion Cube from Portal, and even a clever little sculpture from Katamari Damacy.

Meanwhile, I mangled my pipe cleaners into antennae that, when I put them on, looked like a pile of mangled pipe cleaners. I ultimately fashioned them into an avant-garde interpretation of an NES controller that looked like a pile of mangled pipe cleaners.

Between the pipe cleaners, some interesting costumes worn by people nearby, card games like Fluxx and Win, Lose, Banana (which is exactly what it sounds like), and friendly chatting amongst friends, waiting in line was not the miserable experience it could have been. There was a sense of community that was lacking throughout convention up to that point. Wil Wheaton's keynote speech was said to have something about being "at home" at PAX East, surrounded by others who understand and approve of your geekiness, but I just as often felt like I wanted to go home when things turned sour.

Seems I didn't understand what kind of a convention this was.

Yes, there were issues in how things were set up and run, and perhaps it was foolish to expect the first-ever PAX East to be as streamlined as Otakon, which has had years and years of practice. Even so, my entire plan for the convention was structured around attending panels, as though there was nothing else to do. I had no fewer than ten friends and acquaintances at the convention who would have gladly rolled up a D&D character or played Contra or tried out Merchant of Venus. Almost without exception, these are people who I do not ever get to see.

Wasn't I the one who wanted to spend my time doing things I couldn't do any other time?

I mean, jeez, I can stand in line anywhere. Fortunately, this time, the waiting was more than bearable. In retrospect, though, the waiting was completely unnecessary.

The Saturday night concerts took place in the huge auditorium where we didn't see Wil Wheaton, and the front half of the room leading up to the stage was the "standing room only" floor space--people mingled and went back and forth between standing up there and sitting in the more-than-ample seating in back. Between performances, the auditorium doors were opened so folks could grab a snack, use the bathroom, and not wait in line for an hour to get back in for seats that were hardly limited for a series of performances that neither required nor asked for your undivided attention. Think of it as a concert at a county fair, but indoors, and with more Rock Band, and with fewer pigs wearing blue ribbons.

Indeed, the opening act was a Rock Band competition. There had been video game competitions all throughout the convention, and this was the next phase of the competition for those who had survived this long.

Fact: Just because singing is a skill required for Rock Band does not automatically mean you can sing if you are generally awesome at video games. The audience was highly supportive, and the two battling bands did pretty well altogether, and that's all I have to say about that.

There were three musical acts ahead of us, and I'm sure my failure to disclose who they are has been maddening so far, so I'll just get it over with and say that it was the Video Game Orchestra, Paul and Storm, and Jonathan Coulton.

The Video Game Orchestra had all sorts of traditional orchestra instruments, plus their own rock band. Synthesizer, electric guitar, clarinet, cello, everything you'd ever need to play arrangements and medleys (medlies?) of popular tunes from Super Mario Galaxy, Chrono Trigger, Castlevania, Metal Gear Solid, and Final Fantasy VII, to name a few. VGO, at least in this performance, was not the most technically precise group I've heard, but the arrangements were brilliant, their passion was palpable, and the group was enormously talented. There were beautiful songs that got me all misty-eyed, fun songs that made me smile, and songs that just plain rocked. I loved hearing the Video Game Orchestra.

I did not, however, love what I heard coming from behind me. I'll get to that in a moment.

Following a long wait after VGO left the stage, something happened that is best explained with a video with a naughty word in it:

I don't know what just happened, either. It was silly, though. And silly is good. I think everybody had the same reaction at first: "What the heck is this??" Then, after about a minute, it became funny... except to the people sitting behind me. People who weren't at the concert to see this stupid B.S. People who continued without stopping to bash Paul and Storm as they performed hilarious parody songs ranging from something in the style of They Might Be Giants, to a song about fighting nuns as performed as a Gregorian chant, to an audience-participation-heavy song about pirates that would encourage the audience to continue shouting ARRRRR!!! at semi-appropriate moments during Jonathan Coulton's performance afterward.

A few of Paul and Storm's songs were just too off-color for my taste, but the stuff I liked I would have loved if I could have gone five seconds without the people behind me complaining that Paul and Storm sucked. This is the kind of crowd that you can't reason with, because as soon as you ask them to put a sock in their "sucks," they become more obnoxious just to spite you.

I tried anyhow, and I think one of the people behind me tried to tone it back, so I'm appreciative for that, but that's about as far as I got without resorting to fisticuffs. Five seconds later, the others were tearing apart the performance and swearing about how Paul and Storm needed to get off the stage now so Jonathan Coulton could perform.

Jonathan Coulton, who sounds exactly the same as Paul and Storm.

Remeber my review of Avatar, the part where I talked about getting uncontrollably angry at the characters and the storytelling for forcing the movie into a place where absolutely nothing that anyone did or could do would change the Bad Stuff that was about to happen? The part where I was literally one ounce of self-control away from hurling my bucket of popcorn at the screen? That's exactly how I felt at the concert... but I couldn't emotionally detach myself from the characters to keep from getting burned, because I was the character.

So I burned. Smoldered. Excessive swearing gets on my nerves to begin with. A complete disregard for the people around you makes me upset. When one of them started talking about how they'd rather be at the bar getting drunk, I was so incredibly close to turning around and spitting venom at them about how they should leave for the bar and get lost on the way back. I realize that I've been complaining about these people for several paragraphs, and I recognize the irony, but the difference is that you can stop reading or skip ahead at any time, and if you leave an angry comment about what I'm saying, I'll respond to you diplomatically and maybe even apologize if you feel that I've overstepped some boundary.

But I am still angry about this, and this is the first place I've vented about it since talking to my girlfriend immediately after the concert, so I need to get this out of my system. By the end of Paul and Storm's set, I was forcing myself to laugh as loud as possible to drown out the complaints and to hopefully get so whisked away by the truly funny music that I wouldn't be upset anymore.

It didn't exactly work. The people behind me had ruined Paul and Storm's performance, and in some strange way, Jonathan Coulton was to blame. His fans had wrecked my concert experience. He must be the kind of guy who attracts those kinds of fans. So when Jonathan Coulton got on stage, I could only see him as a subtly pompous, self-important nobody whose songs all sound the same. Congratulations, hecklers, you ruined this part of the concert, too.

Not that I would have been wild about Jonathan Coulton. While tonally he sounds a lot like Paul and Storm (they've been known to tour together, which makes sense), his music is kinda highbrow and philosophical, while Paul and Storm's material is kinda lowbrow and not-so-deep, yet equally clever (albeit in very different ways). I respect Coulton's music, but there's a certain element of dark realism and "it stinks to be a grown-up" that pervades everything, so I'm glad I got to hear him, but I doubt I'll go back and listen to any of his songs a second time.

Except for "Mr. Fancy Pants." That song was awesome.

I should probably end the post right there. You can't top "Mr. Fancy Pants."

[End of post. Stay tuned for the story's thrilling conclusion in Part 5 of the PAX East trilogy!]


Scott said...

I kind of get the feeling that PAX is like a giant LAN party; people go there to be able to play games and hang out with other people of like interest because it's hard to do that at home, especially with group games. Not everyone has a dedicated tabletop group like you do. ;)

Maybe conventions just aren't really your kind of thing. It took me a few before I gave up and admitted it myself...

Flashman85 said...

I got that vibe, too, about PAX being like a giant LAN party. I started to enjoy it more once I realized that, but at the same time, I enjoyed it less because it meant the convention wasn't what I was hoping for.

I don't want to say that conventions aren't my kind of thing, but I suspect that this kind of convention isn't my thing.